Puerto Ricans in rural areas struggle to rebuild homes

FEMA approves less than half of 750,000 applications for assistance

HUMACAO, Puerto Rico. – Drive inland into Puerto Rico and you’ll hear the sound of generators and see signs that the island is still in recovery following Hurricane Maria.

"It was a huge hurricane," Maria Laboy, of Humacao, said. 

The town of Yabucoa, in the southeastern part of the island, is where locals saw Maria begin her path of destruction with winds of 175 mph.

Devastation spread across the entire U.S. territory and the electrical grid was nearly obliterated.

Eight months later, thousands of people are still without power and some are without water.

Many still living under these conditions are some of the most vulnerable.

In Cayey, Local 10 News reporter Christian De La Rosa met Elba Colon Lopez.

She takes care of her aunt full time. Carmen Colon Martinez, 85, suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Lopez said she has a generator, but can barely afford the gas, so they depend on solar lamps.

When she can, she buys ice for her refrigerator.

"It's like living in a different world -- in a third world," Lopez said.

Lopez got emotional as she talked about longtime neighbors and family members who've left her community.

Their homes were destroyed by the hurricane.

Driving into the center of the island, De La Rosa saw people holding signs, pleading with their fellow Americans for help.

"It's like we don't exist," Maria Alvarado, of Corozal, said.

The monster hurricane took her family's roof and everything inside. Alvarado and her family are still living in a hurricane shelter in Corozal, where they have to take showers out in the open next to where they wash their clothes.

"It's demoralizing, but I have nowhere else to go," Alvarado said.

Justo Hernandez, deputy federal coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Puerto Rico, said many of the communities will have to wait well into the hurricane season to get their power back on.

De La Rosa saw crews working to restore service, but the island's topography is making it a tough task.

In Comerio, families said helicopters had to be used to install new power poles, but they're still waiting on the electricity to be turned on.

FEMA's also facing criticism, accused of moving too slow in rendering aid to those trying to rebuild.

Out of 750,000 applications for housing assistance, FEMA has approved less than half.

Alvarado said she lost the roof to her home and everything inside, but she was still denied help from FEMA.

FEMA officials said one of their biggest obstacles is many families, especially in rural areas, lack property records or proof of ownership.

It's the case for many in Humacao, where families have lived in the same home for generations.

"We've been living here for hundreds and hundreds of years -- my family -- there are no property records," Laboy said. 

Hernandez said FEMA is working with the local government on the issue.

"My biggest concern right now is that people are not ready," Hernandez said. 

FEMA's team of 4,000 workers on the island is also focusing on hurricane preparedness. The agency admits it was not ready when Maria hit Puerto Rico, pointing to a lack of resources after its response to Hurricane Irma right before Maria.

The agency said this time around, it's stocking up with seven times the amount of food and water it had last time and is increasing the number of critical infrastructure generators from 800 to 1,100.

Hernandez said he wants people on the island to get ready for the hurricane season as the impact of another storm on the island could be catastrophic.

"People are not ready for that," Hernandez said. "We know that the power -- a small tropical storm would take the power out -- and if power goes out, water might go out."


Hurricane Survival Guide

About the Author:

Christian De La Rosa joined Local 10 News in April 2017 after spending time as a reporter and anchor in Atlanta, San Diego, Orlando and Panama City Beach.